Some hate groups might have been deplatformed from social media, but that doesn’t mean that their bigotry has disappeared.

A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) warns that it’s going to be more difficult for researchers to keep tabs on extremism as white supremacists and other hate groups move to encrypted online communications channels.

In the report released on Monday, the SPLC found that the number of hate groups in the U.S. fell 11 percent between 2019 and 2020 — to 838 active organizations. However, as the report points out, this doesn’t mean “a reduction in bigoted beliefs and actions motivated by hate.”

In fact, thanks to online platforms, many extremists no longer even need to officially join these groups.

“Online platforms allow individuals to interact with hate and antigovernment groups without joining them, as well as to form connections and talk with likeminded people,” reads the report.

The growth of both the QAnon conspiracy theory and the Boogaloo Boys movement are perfect examples of this dynamic. Neither group requires membership nor do they have an official organization you can join. Yet both QAnon and the Boogaloo Boys movement have been involved in real-world violence, and even death, in 2020.

“The insurrection at the Capitol was the culmination of years of right-wing radicalization,” said SPLC’s Intelligence Project director Susan Corke. “Most recently, it was the product of Donald Trump’s support for and encouragement of radicalized individuals and groups to buy into conspiracy theories about a ‘stolen election.’”

The storming of the Capital, which resulted in five deaths, was propelled by QAnon, a conspiracy falsely claiming that Trump is waging a war with a Satanic child-trafficking ring run by his political enemies. Many QAnon believers took part in the violence at the Capitol on January 6.

On top of that, white supremacists and other hate groups are becoming more spread out across the internet, making them harder to track.

Over the past few years, mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have come down harder on these types of users, banning them from their services. Right-wing networks, like Parler, have also been taken down by internet service providers, leaving some of these extremists without an alternative social media option. Instead, many hate groups have turned to encrypted platforms, like Signal and Telegram, which offer secure, private messaging.

“Trump may no longer be in the White House, but the white nationalist and extremist movement he emboldened and incited to violence is not going anywhere – and may grow more dangerous to our country,” warned Corke.

The fall out from recent extremist actions and the online platforms’ response to them has yet to be fully understood. The SPLC says it will be going deeper into how the encrypted messaging platforms affect researchers’ work in tracking hate groups in a future report.

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